What Are the Different Types of Nurses? Specializations and Fields

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The nursing field offers a spectrum of professional opportunities ranging from registered nurse to nurse practitioner to chief nursing officer. But how do these types of nurses differ from one another? Do different nursing roles have vastly different job duties and pay ranges? What career opportunities does an advanced degree like a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) open up?

Whatever nursing career you choose, your work will help countless individuals overcome their healthcare challenges. Nursing is one of the most in-demand professions in the country. Considering that the role is projected to continue growing over the next decade, there’s never been a better time to become a nurse.

To understand the career options available under the nursing umbrella, individuals should explore several types of in-demand nursing positions.

A nurse in blue scrubs poses inside a hospital.

Registered Nurse

In hospitals nationwide, registered nurses (RNs) account for the majority of the nursing professionals on any given shift. Many of the nurses you’ll encounter are registered nurses who have earned either their associate or bachelor’s degree in nursing from an accredited higher education institution.

Employers often give preference to hiring RNs with Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees. Regardless of education, all nurses must pass the NCLEX-RN to obtain licensure and practice in any medical facility.

As an RN, your day-to-day responsibilities can include assessing patients; administering and monitoring medications; wound care; bathing, feeding, and dressing patients; precise record-keeping; and maintaining patients’ overall health and safety while they are in your care. RNs also can work in conjunction with medical techs, doctors, surgeons, counselors, administrative professionals, and others to deliver comprehensive care to every patient.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for RNs was $75,330 per year as of May 2020, and the field is projected to grow about 9% between 2020 and 2030.

Travel Nurse

A travel nurse is an RN who lends their nursing abilities to hospitals and healthcare facilities on a temporary basis. In most cases, they help facilities that are short-staffed or experiencing a surge in patients due to a local issue such as a public health crisis or natural disaster.

One benefit of the position is that travel nurses work in a wide variety of settings and locations. Not only does this broaden their nursing experience, but it also gives travel nurses the opportunity to choose their own assignments and location, offering a level of flexibility that is unique in the nursing field. Additionally, travel nurses are usually given temporary housing and paid a stipend in addition to their salary.

According to PayScale, travel nurses had a median annual salary of approximately $80,000 as of September 2021. Travel nurses can sometimes negotiate for higher salaries because they work as contractors. Attributes such as experience, education, region, and the hiring facility all play a factor in a travel nurse’s actual salary.

Trauma Nurse

A trauma nurse is a specialty RN who works exclusively with patients under intense duress who are facing life-threatening illnesses or injuries, such as gunshot wounds, critical head wounds, severe burns, and internal bleeding. Trauma nurses work in high-stress environments that often require quick thinking in time-sensitive situations.

Of the different types of nurses, few work in as fast-paced and intense a setting as trauma nurses. The ability to remain calm under pressure is crucial. Trauma nurses work in a variety of different healthcare settings including hospitals, ambulance transport, intensive care units, and trauma centers.

To become a trauma nurse, an RN must be certified by the Society of Trauma Nurses, complete 1,000 dedicated hours of trauma nursing, and complete 20 to 30 hours of trauma-specific coursework. Additionally, they must earn certification in basic life support and advanced cardiac life support from the American Heart Association. According to PayScale, trauma nursing course-certified RNs had a median annual salary of about $84,000 as of September 2021.

Nurse Practitioner

Nurse practitioners (NPs) hold a professional title that places them above RNs in terms of capabilities and responsibilities, but below medical doctors. NPs treat a variety of patients as both primary and specialty care providers. With much greater autonomy than RNs, in many states, NPs can assess, treat, and prescribe medications without consulting a physician. However, when necessary, nurse practitioners consult or work with a variety of doctors and healthcare professionals.

The BLS reports that nurse practitioners had a median annual salary of $111,680 in 2020, and the field is predicted to grow 52% between 2020 and 2030, much faster than the labor market as a whole.

To become a nurse practitioner, you must earn a master’s degree in nursing from an accredited program. Many nurse practitioners choose to pursue a doctorate degree. Nurse practitioners typically select a specialty such as the following:

Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner specializing in adult-gerontology acute care provides critical care services for adult patients in intensive care, emergency care, oncology, and other specialized units.

Adult-Gerontology Primary Care Nurse Practitioner

A nurse practitioner specializing in adult-gerontology primary care provides holistic care for adult patients in private practice, home care, community clinic, nursing home, and other preventive care settings.

Family Nurse Practitioner

A family nurse practitioner serves as a primary care provider for patients of all ages. These professionals focus on providing illness prevention, disease management, health counseling, and wellness education for families.

Pediatric Nurse Practitioner

Pediatric nurse practitioners provide wellness care services for children and adolescents. They conduct health and developmental screenings and provide treatment for health issues.

Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner

This type of nurse practitioner specializes in psychiatry and mental health, and is focused on helping those with mental illness as well as promoting mental well-being in communities. They may serve in psychiatric hospitals, independent practices, assisted living centers, or outpatient clinics.

Nurse Educator

Nurse educators have a unique position among nurses because they work in the hospital system to provide in-service training at varying levels of expertise.

As an educator, you can help other nurses meet their annual continuing education requirements, provide specialized training that allows registered nurses to climb the clinical ladder, and support orientation efforts for graduate nurses and nurses seeking to move into a different specialty.

Nurse educators typically hold a master’s or doctorate degree and have years of hands-on nursing experience.

According to data collected by PayScale, nurse educators had a median salary of about $77,000 as of September 2021.

Nurse Leader

Nursing offers a steady career track for professional growth and development — from head nurse up to chief nursing officer or even hospital CEO.

The opportunity to advance into leadership positions like these is possible with extensive nursing experience, an advanced education, an expansive professional network of nurses, and the willingness to move to another hospital or a new city.

In addition to being experts in their field, nurse leaders must have a keen understanding of nursing’s business aspects: staffing; team building; budgeting; regulatory issues; and the other practicalities of managing a unit, department, or hospital-wide nursing practice.

Some of the qualities of standout nurse leaders include integrity, emotional capacity, social intelligence, and effective communication skills.

Chief Nursing Officer (CNO)

Chief nursing officers are high-level nurses who generally work in hospitals, directing nursing activities in accordance with hospital procedures. They work to ensure that nurses adhere to strict safety policies to protect the patients in the hospital’s care. They also work with hospital leadership to develop new patient care strategies and verify that existing procedures are up to par.

As a CNO, you might be responsible for duties such as managing staff levels, developing and executing emergency plans, overseeing budgets, and planning for supplies and equipment purchases. You also might participate in or direct nursing training exercises, orientations, and educational programs.

CNOs are expected to have at least master’s-level training in nursing, although a DNP can help make you a more appealing candidate. According to data compiled by PayScale, CNOs had a median salary of about $135,000 as of September 2021. According to the BLS, healthcare manager employment as a whole is expected to grow by 32% between 2020 and 2030.

Healthcare Organization CEO

Another possible DNP career is CEO of a healthcare organization. While many CEOs arrive at the job from a more traditional corporate background, healthcare organizations may prefer to hire candidates with a high-level medical background. In many DNP programs, you might have the opportunity to supplement your nursing knowledge with business courses.

As a CEO, you’re responsible for overseeing all aspects of an organization, including staff, finances, and strategic planning. The CEO works closely with stakeholders and other business leaders, gathering outside perspectives and expertise, but is responsible for making the ultimate decisions.

CEO salaries vary significantly according to the type and size of the organization, but the median salary is around $156,000 according to September 2021 PayScale data. The high salary makes CEO positions appealing to many qualified applicants, so competition is stiff — but with an advanced degree in nursing, you may be able to set yourself apart from the competition.

Meet Your Goals with an Advanced Nursing Degree

Whether you’re ready to start your nursing career or climb to the highest echelons, your advancement starts with education. There are many different types of nurses who work in a variety of healthcare settings. Earning the right degree can give you the nursing skills that may make the difference between getting hired and getting passed by.

To learn how you can advance your nursing career to the highest levels, look into Maryville University’s online Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree and see how a DNP can take your career to new heights.

Recommended Reading

DNP Careers for Advanced Nurse Practitioners

DNP Degree: What Can You Do with a Doctorate in Nursing?

How Long Is the DNP Program?

Sources

American Heart Association, CPR & First Aid

American Traveler, What Is Travel Nursing?

Host Healthcare, “Top 20 Advantages and Disadvantages of Being A Nurse”

Johnson & Johnson, Trauma Nurse at a Glance

PayScale.com, Average Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Salary

PayScale.com, Average Chief Nursing Officer (CNO Salary)

PayScale.com, Average Nurse Educator Salary

PayScale.com, Average Travel Nurse (RN) Hourly Pay

PayScale.com, Salary for Certification: Trauma Nursing Course Certified (TNCC)

Society of Trauma Nurses

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Registered Nurses